Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn: great, unrelentingly great, ought to be an easy choice for Best Supporting Actress. Great directing, unsurprisingly. The rest of The Aviator: merely pretty good.
The thing is, Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t up to the role. I still think he’s a decent actor, but he doesn’t have the gravitas necessary to play this part and — like Tom Cruise and his smile — he’s allowed one physical tic to overtake and overshadow his acting. By the end of The Aviator, I badly wanted Scorsese to sneak into DiCaprio’s trailer and inject him with Botox. Anything to get rid of that little crease between his eyes; anything to keep him from substituting a furrowed brow for action. Whether he was portraying concentration, unhappiness, madness, anger, concern, confusion.. it’s all the squint and frown. This was particularly painful when contrasted with Cate Blanchett’s ability to convey a novel by blinking just so.
I’m being a little unfair, because DiCaprio brought great energy to the young Hughes. The movie opens with the three year Hell’s Angels shoot and there’s nothing lacking in DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hughes’ boundless optimism and his love of cinema. Still and all, he’s not the guy to show us a descent into madness. Matt Damon, say, could have been pitch perfect in this part, and he’s just the first actor who comes to mind.
That early section of the movie, and the romance with Katherine Hepburn which follows, is clearly where Scorsese’s passion lies; it’s the story of early Hollywood from black and whites through two-strip Technicolor into the epic. And man, does Scorsese ever indulge himself, blending the looks of the various film processes seamlessly into his own movie. Perhaps my favorite sequence, technically speaking, is the Hell’s Angels opening night sequence: we go from early newsreel footage into black and white into full color as the scope pulls in from an overview of the street scene to Hughes and Hepburn. It’s just a virtuoso piece of directing and camerawork, and there’s plenty of it in the rest of the movie as well.
For better or worse, though, the movie segues into the equally relevant story of Hughes’s aviation endeavors. You can’t tell the whole Howard Hughes story without talking about TWA and the Spruce Goose and yeah, the insanity. Scorsese just doesn’t make it as compelling as the Hollywood story. Also, this is where DiCaprio’s lightness gets in the way; he can’t show us the bridge between the playboy pilot and the madman. There’s not enough context for Hughes as a whole, and when Ava Gardner lifts Hughes out of depression so that he can battle Senator Brewster in Washington, there are no clues as to how she (or he) manages it.
The problem is that Hughes’ life is too big. The Aviator doesn’t reach much beyond 1950, and even so it’s stuffed too full. Katherine Hepburn gets a lot of time; Ava Gardner gets very little. Howard Hawks doesn’t appear at all. Perhaps if Scorsese had picked either Hollywood or aviation — but then you don’t get the complete picture of the complex man. It’s a conundrum; maybe in the end The Aviator made the best possible choices. It’s definitely an ambitiously skilled movie, and it’s nothing short of a spectacle, albeit one with flaws.